Monday, September 8, 2014

My Journey, Part 4: Questioning "the Gospel"

This is part 4 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

Once my doubts about the gospel story started, they never stopped. Rather than simply following a single line of thought, they quickly branched out to many different facets of the gospel, which I have attempted to break into some themes. Reflecting the period I was going through in late 2012 and 2013, this post is rather more negative than I would like. (It gets better!)

The Fall

The Fall: the moment when it all went wrong. The origin of the big problem to which Jesus is the solution. According to the evangelical narrative, sin came into the world through Adam (Rom 5:12); consequently, we are all born with a sinful nature that makes us slaves to iniquity from the womb, subject to the just punishment of death for our acts of treason against a holy God. We are born into slavery to sin, unable to produce any good in ourselves, yet somehow this inability makes us more culpable rather than less. Adam's act of disobedience was the "original sin" that is responsible for our present predicament from which Jesus saves us.

As I felt increasingly disconnected from the way my biblical theology class interpreted biblical passages (especially OT passages) "in light of Christ" in a way that seemed to disregard their original context and meaning to fit them into our prepared "gospel" narrative, I saw little of the gospel Fall narrative in what Genesis 2-3 actually said. The garden of Eden was supposed to be a perfect, deathless paradise before the Fall, yet factors in the text itself challenge both of these assertions (man's immortality seems dependent on ongoing access to the tree of life in 3:22; the words for "till" and "keep" in 2:15 have militaristic connotations suggesting that the rest of the world might not have been like the garden; there is a lying, talking snake in the garden before the Fall). The snake itself is always identified with Satan, but this is dependent on a connection with Revelation 20:2, not anywhere in Genesis itself.
The most likely explanation of Gen 3:14-15 is that God is actually speaking to the serpent as an animal, which begs the question: why would God curse a snake for being acted through by Satan? … Sin entered the world through the man and woman, but before that the snake. (2012-9-13)
Genesis 2:24 was supposed to be the record of God "creating the institution" of marriage, yet to all appearances it seemed more like a post facto explanation to the already-existing tradition (note how Adam's poetry in 2:23—not a decree of God—is taken as the direct reason for marriage in the time of writing). Likewise the attempt to glimpse a complete account of "how it was supposed to be" from 2:25 seems sketchy. I already mentioned my difficulty seeing the "protoevangelium" in 3:14-15. These two chapters in Genesis seemed to me a textbook example of clobbering a text's original meaning in the practice of "Scripture interprets Scripture". And wasn't the author's original meaning supposed to be the true meaning? (This was my dispensationalist phase talking)

I also wrestled with the theological implications of God allowing the Fall to happen if it was really so completely awful that it somehow "broke" the entire creation:
It's very hard to see 'the Fall' from a state of sinless perfection as anything other than a great derailment of God's plans. ... We justify it by saying God used it to bring 'more glory' to Himself—treating glory as a quantity. (Which, for God, is supposed to be infinite anyway) What keeps people holding to the Fall is the false belief that the alternative is a denial of sin and the gospel. (2013-5-1)
It didn't make sense: if God was really as sovereign as I was taught (from a Reformed perspective) He was, why on earth would He allow His creatures to so ruin His perfect world? In fact, how could they even do this? I pretty clearly gave my objections to the "cosmic Fall" theory for explaining natural evil (that God cursed the creation as a punishment for Adam's sin) in May. When this question wasn't simply answered with an appeal to mystery, it was with an appeal to God's "glory"—a fallen and restored creation would be better and bring more glory to God than one that had never fallen in the first place. But, being omnipotent, why couldn't God have made the world this way to begin with? Was Eden perfect or not? Why was the finite Adam able to do instantly something that's taking God thousands of years to undo? And extending how the Fall was supposed to happen, how do we know there will be no second Fall after God makes everything perfect again, if what made the first one possible was human free will? If we will somehow be totally free but without the possibility of sinning, then why didn't God just create us like this in the first place? The implied questions were limitless.

The last part of this entry also protests how we have made this interpretation of Genesis 2-3 absolutely critical for the rest of the gospel story, the part without which nothing would make sense. We think of evil, sin, and death not so much in terms of their present reality as in terms of their beginning (the Fall) and ending (the Atonement). The Fall narrative was presented as the only theodicy needed: sin, death, and suffering are not God's will but exist because of Adam's sin, and God is working to redeem the effects of this sin. So my questions about it cast the rest of the gospel into doubt as well.

And, of course, there was the fact that this Fall narrative made the evangelical gospel story dependent on the claim that sin and death came into the world through Adam's sin and denying the (incompatible) scientific facts that there was no first pair of humans and that animals were living, dying, and evolving millions of years before humans existed.
Theistic evolution implies death before the Fall—uh-oh... (2012-9-16)
I eventually settled for simply not knowing how they fit together and "trusting God" with the answer.

Sin/The Human Condition

I was also becoming dissatisfied with how evangelical theology described the basic human condition. In the narrative of the 'gospel', humanity's 'big problem' is sin: it entered the world through Adam (Rom 5:12 again), brought death and condemnation to all men (see also 5:17-19), was dealt a deathblow by Jesus's atoning death on the cross, and will be fully done away with at His return. But I realized I couldn't follow the evangelical arithmetic of sin, as high treason against an infinitely holy God that instantly brought eternal condemnation and death, no matter what the actual offense. It made God's justice seem like a parody of our human legal systems, rather than the other way around. I had trouble believing God made no distinction between swearing and genocide. I wrote,
How is all sin like crossing the moral event horizon for God? ...With God, He is perfect and we should have the highest regard for Him and therefore not want to disobey. If we do it is because we don't hold Him in the highest regard or see Him as perfect—we believe a lie. Except coasting through a stop sign is not treason. The use of the word 'treason' to refer to sin is not biblical. ... every sin reflects this loss of viewing God as perfect and all-sufficient. (2012-10-16)
I think with the stop sign example I was comparing sinning against God to breaking the laws of the land; obviously, not everything that is a crime according to the American legal system is treason. As well, I was trying to get at the relational (rather than the legal) dimension of sin, which I saw as being neglected by this judicially-minded talk of sin as "treason against a holy God", as the ultimate cosmic crime that had to be punished. I began to see sin as leading to death because it cuts us off from the author of life, not because it incurs a death penalty. This view seemed superior because it showed how some sins could be worse than others as well as why all sin is a problem (beyond just "because God must punish it"; see below).

I was also dissatisfied with the emphasis on sin being used to denigrate human dignity or agency (often in support of the kind of dualism between us and God I used to hold to). Humans, it was supposed, were so flawed and sinful that even our best attempts at righteousness are "filthy rags" (Isa 64:6) before the all-holy God, which we are to count as loss (Phil 3:8) as we trust entirely in Christ's sufficiency rather than our inability. But did this kind of focus on the "sinful nature" lead us to see ourselves more negatively than God sees us (and to believe that the worse assessment of our nature is always necessarily the more accurate)? In the thinking that led up to my post on how God will praise us, I wrote:
In reformed teaching we are just (presumably interchangeable) passive, imperfect straws through which the spirit blows. But this view misses much. We will get praise from God—for what we have done with what we have been given, for how well we've obeyed. (2013-3-16)
Using "sin" as a blanket explanation for why we couldn't expect anything more from ourselves than continual disobedience was starting to seem like a cop-out. Even in the Reformed teaching I was misunderstanding, we're supposed to be saved not from God's moral standards, but in order to obey them better. This would seem to undercut the dichotomies between God's agency and ours I was hearing, which contrasted Jesus' perfect righteousness with our sin-addled attempts to secure righteousness for ourselves. But I didn't hear this nuance as often as I heard simple dichotomies between our righteousness and Christ's.

God's "Justice"/PSA

As I said above, I also stopped being able to make sense of the evangelical account of God's response to our sin. Because the penalty for our sin is death, God, being perfectly just, would be right to destroy us at any time for our sin, so even our continued existence is a testament to His mercy—so the thinking goes. I tried and failed to convince myself of this. God's "justice" was conceptualized as the necessity to punish sin (in the sense of giving a courtroom verdict and "executing justice"), for "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23). If God simply let our sin slide or let up in His condemnation in the slightest, then He would not be perfectly just; it has to be punished—right? I was starting to doubt that.
Why are the wages of sin death? Why is God considered just to kill people for any sin? Is this just an arbitrary feature of His justice? (2013-1-12)
I asked a pointed question in an attempt to draw out what I saw as the questionable part of this view of our sin and God's justice:
If, somehow, a person could be instantaneously rendered morally perfect and without a sinful nature, would that person still have need of further justification from God? (2013-2-6)
I still think this is a great question. If (as evangelicals will sometimes say) sin is not primarily what we do but who we are, then is the point of "dealing with sin" to provide a legal mechanism to forgive acts of wrongdoing, or actually healing the presence of sin (as an infection) in our souls? Is our "justification" before God forensic (legal acquittal of past wrongdoing) or moral (restoration of our present moral righteousness)? The idea that "salvation" is something that we can attain fully and instantaneously by divine decree (i.e. without actually becoming morally perfect) would seem to indicate the former options. By implication, God holds our past transgressions against us regardless of our current state, this remembrance seems to be a corollary of His justice, and it is from this impure record and the just condemnation that it brings that we are saved in the moment of justification. This is what I call a juridical view of sin, and I was having trouble believing it anymore.

A few weeks later I wrote of how I was shifting to seeing God's justice as something that we desperately seek to see restored to the world instead of something we graciously are spared from, something that was "satisfied" by restoration and flourishing rather than by punishment. This was a more relational, less juridical view of God's justice. I clarified the tension between these conceptions further in March:
One gets this image of this invisible, spiritual mass of sin of which we are insensible but which God sees all too clearly and will judge us by—no. Our sin is not 'out there', it is all 'in us'. (2013-3-29)
I saw evangelical theology as conceptualizing sin as this "spiritual object" somewhere out there, not intrinsic to our selves, that we add to with our transgressions and that God (being just) cannot ignore and has to get past (by punishing/condemning it) before He can have a relationship with us. In the evangelical gospel, our sin keeps God away from us because God, being "just", cannot tolerate sin in His presence. (Well, except that whole time in Job 1-2 when He has a face-to-face meeting with the devil. And maybe when He comes to earth and spends a good deal of time with the outcasts of society.) I expected such a fundamental problem as sin to be more intrinsic to us, too much so to be defeated by a mere legal decree.

I also questioned the dominant theory of atonement in evangelicalism, penal substitution, which seemed dependent on this external view of sin as something that can be decisively "dealt with" by a courtroom maneuver and of God's justice as the necessity to legally retaliate against sin which can be "satisfied" by Jesus' sacrifice and thus bypassed in order to have a relationship with Him.
The difficulty with the penal substitution view is that God's wrath seems needlessly cruel, disconnected from the actual offense. (2013-3-29)
It seemed to me that in penal substitution (and this juridical view of sin in general), we weren't saved from our sin so much as from what God was going to do to us for our sin. The problem of sin that was so often emphasized was not that sin relationally separated us from God because of our ungodliness, but that it legally separated God from us because of His justice. If it did relationally separate us, it was because it legally separated us first and foremost. And I could not accept this. I saw it as misapplying language of God as 'judge' so that our whole relationship with God was understood through a courtroom metaphor, mediated by it, rather than simply allowing it to speak to a dimension of the relationship. God wants to love us, it seems, but He is first and foremost the great cosmic judge and He has to fully discharge His legal duties (namely, hearing the case against us) before He can get off the stand and come near us.


Another flaw of PSA that I saw was how it concentrated the whole work of redemption, the sine qua non of the gospel, into the crucifixion, effectively making it central to the gospel and implicitly demoting the rest of Jesus' time on earth. Even the resurrection seemed secondary, since it wasn't what "dealt with" our sin in this crucial legal sense. It mostly served to rectify the problem of God being dead after the crucifixion and to exemplify the fullness of life beyond death that Jesus bought for us on the cross, and the rest of the teachings of Jesus...well, the gospel isn't about what we do to make ourselves righteous but what what Jesus has completely done to make us righteous, but if our saving faith in Him starts to spill over into our lives, great! His commands and teachings are not laws that we have to follow to make ourselves acceptable to God but a way to check yourself to see if you are bearing fruit in keeping with repentance; we can't make ourselves any more obedient to them. (there's that "justification by faith alone" dualism again)

Once again, I found this borderline-exclusionary focus on the cross over every other dimension of Jesus' life and ministry unsatisfying, reductionistic, and opaque. There had to be a reason for all the things Jesus said and did (occupying most of the gospel accounts about Him) before and after His passion. At the very least, I thought the "gospel" should place at least as much emphasis on the resurrection as on the crucifixon.
Arguably the biggest flaw with penal substitution is that it marginalizes the resurrection, makes it unnecessary for our atonement. (2013-3-28)
Luther's emphasis on the cross of Christ risks making one part of the gospel message into the whole thing, our only light for seeing God. This can be confining, even damaging. (2013-4-24)
Luther was not alone; I have often heard "the cross of Christ" used synecdochically to refer to the whole gospel. But without a counterintuitive legal mechanism by which it can completely secure our "salvation", the cross cannot stand alone. I wanted an understanding of the gospel that would be summed up as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, by mentioning Christ's death and resurrection in the same breath. Having been told the crucicentric rendition of the gospel for years, I wasn't sure what this might look like.

As well, in all the talk of sharing "the gospel of Jesus Christ", "trusting Jesus", "Jesus as Lord and Savior", Jesus as the one who decisively defeats sin, I saw another potential imbalance.
I think evangelicalism does overfocus on Jesus over the rest of the Trinity. (2012-10-8)
In the gospel of PSA, the Father supposedly loves us and is coequal to the Son, but is also apparently the wrathful, "just" judge of sin that Jesus saves us from. Within this tension between justice and love, and considering Jesus' place in it, it's easy to see how we can focus our thanks and adoration on Jesus, our "savior". Again, the Holy Spirit is our comforter and advocate, sent by Jesus to live in us, transform us, and pray for us, but I sensed in all the sola fide-istic denials that we can or should actively participate in our salvation or sanctification an implicit denial of His ministry.

Focus on salvation

I also questioned the enormous weight and importance put on "getting saved", "putting your trust in Jesus", "starting a relationship with Jesus", "being justified by faith", etc. that I saw in evangelicalism. In October 2012 I made a bridge analogy that I found helpful:
I get this image of a celestial bridge across a great divide. The bridge is the gospel, and it spans from Death to Life. Other bridges go from nearer outcroppings to Death, and people think the outcroppings are life. The point of crossing the gospel bridge is to get to the other side and lie there, never forgetting where you came from and how you got there. (2012-10-13) 
The whole focus of evangelicalism is the bridge—how wonderful it is that it's there, and getting other people to cross it. (2012-10-14)
I'm not sure if it was intentional, but I was recalling an image that was commonplace among evangelicals.
Does he have to climb over the top part of the cross, or work his way around it somehow? I've always wondered.
This diagram is similar to one that I saw used (explicitly or implicitly) in thinking about 'the gospel'. The focus is entirely on how to get across the chasm separating us from God. Once you cross the chasm, everything after is simply depicted as "GOD". "Getting across the chasm to God" seems to be thought of similarly to "living happily ever after", as if the rest of your life will just work itself out after you 'get saved'. No one would explicitly say this, of course, but it was the message I was getting from so emphasizing the single-moment-of-salvation aspect of the evangelical gospel over everything else.

Especially in Cru, but also in general, the strong focus on evangelism, on helping other people to hear and respond to this gospel made it hard for me to see how I 'fit in' to the body of Christ, the church. My introverted nature made it hard enough for me to go up to strangers and engage them in what might be the most important conversation of their lives; my doubts about the gospel I was supposed to be sharing made it nigh impossible. How could I share something that didn't make sense to me?
If we reduce the gospel from a new reality to a message to be proclaimed, the range of acceptable parts of the body of Christ shrinks distinctly. (2013-4-7)
I also became aware of the pastoral quandaries brought about by this binary view of salvation. It's understandable how such a binary view could shift peoples' focus from living as saved to simply being sure they 'have' salvation.
If the only two categories we have are 'saved' and 'unsaved', the only alternative to everything being great between you and God is admitting that you're unsaved. (2013-5-8)
Of course evangelicals view their faith with more nuance than this—but is this because of a binary view of salvation, or in spite of it?
We place such a high importance on knowing you have obtained salvation, we deflect any verses that might challenge that assurance—because I'm so sinful, I'll throw salvation away the first chance I get. Are we supposed to be so worried about whether we're 'saved'? (2013-5-16)
Insidiously, this conceptualization of salvation as something you "receive" from God and then "have" (i.e. a "spiritual object") threatens to shift our focus from trusting in God to seeking certainty that we have received something from Him. This attitude is unacceptable with physical possessions or any other created things, yet it's allowed for salvation? (I had heard plenty of explanations that salvation was essentially receiving the gift of God Himself, but then why did we keep talking about this thing called "salvation"?)

And, embarrassingly, the question of children (or infant) salvation was a grey area of this paradigm. How can we know when children are old enough to have 'saving faith'? What is the difference between a child who is old enough and one who is not?
Our model of sin and salvation doesn't apply to children—so you get wonky debates on paedobaptism and infant salvation. (2013-6-17)
These were all clues to me that the way I'd been conceptualizing salvation was in need of improvement. 


I grew tired of the term 'relationship with God', often preceded by the word 'personal'. In an attempt to help the gospel land with people and not just be something to believe intellectually, it was stated in very personal terms: 'God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life', 'When Jesus died on the cross He was thinking of you', 'Jesus died for my sin', etc. (Often this came at the expense of the intellectual side of faith, as I would see) I realized the potential problems of focusing on this personal dimension:
How is the gospel usually stated in evangelicalism? 'God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, so He sent Jesus so that your sin could be forgiven and you can have a personal relationship with Him.' With such a personal understanding of the gospel—as being all about you and God—is it any wonder that so many American Christians have a self-centered faith? (2013-1-10)
A few days later I wrote of the 'impersonal gospel' I thought we were missing. I sought a bigger, more cosmic and universal view of God's redemption, of which the personal dimension of the gospel is simply one part.
A self-focused faith also blinds me to the glory of God throughout the universe by making faith too 'personal'. (2013-2-6)
As much as I need to feel loved, I also wanted a gospel that truly made me feel small and left me in awe of the plans and glory of God. The highly personal gospel of evangelicalism was not doing this for me.

Descriptive or normative?

With all of these doubts, it's no surprise that I had trouble accepting the overall gospel 'storyline' that I was hearing. I couldn't look back to a decisive, dramatic moment when I let Jesus come into my heart and transform my life. I couldn't see my life as a constant struggle against trying to prove myself 'good enough' to God (what Jesus was supposed to have saved us from), at least without a lot of unintuitive mental maneuvering. On a meta level, I couldn't see how my present struggle with doubt and questions fit into this narrative at all.
It's not helpful when my twisted, specific situation is answered with vague, 'gospel' generalities. (2013-1-13)
By mid-2013, I was apparently distancing myself from evangelicalism, partly because of how its redemption narrative just didn't seem to fit me, as I noticed every time I tried to write my "testimony".
I kept waiting for God to write me a story that fit into the evangelical four-point narrative. I stopped being one when I realized God had no intention of doing this. (2013-6-14)
The gospel narrative of salvation seemed disconnected from my experience, like something I was supposed to intentionally fit my life into, a square peg into a round hole. But this made it impossible for it to illuminate or explain what I was going through. I realized the importance of connecting my received faith with the rest of my life, but for the reasons listed above I couldn't seem to do this. I couldn't see how a message with so many holes in it could possibly explain my relationship with the divine or the purpose of my life.

Holistic deconstruction

An important qualification: my questions about the vision of the gospel that was being presented to me weren't so much over statements I thought were false outright (though those did occasionally happen, especially with very strong/exclusionary statements), but over misplaced emphasis: parts of the gospel were shifted around, distorted, overemphasized or marginalized. This telling of the gospel had plenty of truth to it, but that truth did not seem to be in the proper balance. Regardless of how its individual pieces were justified from Scripture, the way they were put together into the big picture just wasn't believable to me. I kept wanting to respond: "Yes, but..." Some examples:
  • The 'Pauline' reading of Genesis 2-3 was given center stage until it became the only reading.
  • The legal dimension of sin was overemphasized in the message of salvation; I wasn't sure that it was even worth focusing on.
  • Within this legal framework, sin was closely associated with "works-righteousness": human attempts to establish legal merit before God, as if this was all there is to sin. In denial of these, our agency/righteousness was dualistically opposed to God's; the former is bad, the latter good.
  • God's justice was viewed primarily as the necessity to judicially punish sin, instead of the broader sense of something positive that God is restoring whose consequence is the punishment of those who oppose it.
  • This distorted picture of redemption was accomplished primarily on the cross (so that "the cross" becomes virtually synonymous with salvation), only secondarily in the empty tomb.
  • Jesus was the one we wanted to tell everyone about, never just "God", the Father, or the Holy Spirit.
  • The initial moment of salvation was prized above all else; salvation was an all-or-nothing deal, a crucial, life-altering turning point; the rest of life afterward was out of focus.
  • Partly in reaction to the perceived intellectual dryness of a doctrine-centric faith, the personal dimension of salvation was turned way up: "when he was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you".
I'm also aware that there are answers to most of these things within evangelical theology—but seemingly nowhere in evangelical worship and practice, as far as I could see. They were often posed as question or brief sketches by theologians exploring the possibilities of their tradition, almost as far from soaking down to the ground level of the church as you can get. Attempting to blaze my own path through the gap between church and academy would entail an incredibly individualistic picture of faith with which I may have once been comfortable, but no longer was. I tried to see past these problems to the theoretical solutions I was only reading about, and to help others to do the same, but the constant waves of doubt and disagreement made it very hard to be constructive. I couldn't do this project of reinvention on my own; I was never meant to. And my doubts continued to deepen...

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